As Japan’s ratification of an international treaty that helps settle international child custody disputes awaits Diet approval, some mothers are dealing with the distress of their non-Japanese spouses taking their children abroad at the last minute.
These women face difficulties in enlisting wide support, as the issue of “parental abductions” to Japan tends to grab more attention. Japan is often portrayed as a safe haven for estranged Japanese parents bringing their children here, and as such has been under international pressure to sign the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
The mothers’ plight can also be considered less serious than that of parents who are totally denied access to their children in Japan, because many of the countries where their children were taken could award joint custody — unlike Japan, which has a sole-custody system.
In addition to language barriers and expensive legal costs, the slow progress by Japan to join the international treaty weighs on the mothers’ shoulders, as Tokyo’s accession to the convention holds the key to their future parenting arrangements.
A woman in her 30s living in Saitama Prefecture has been separated from her two children since December 2010. Her American husband has refused to return to Japan and is now living in Florida with the kids and their grandmother.
The couple and their Japan-born kids had originally planned to move to Florida together, but the husband, who taught English in Japan, later refused to sponsor his wife for a visa. According to her, he said he no longer wanted to live with her because she was poor at child-rearing.
“I think my husband knew that in Japan it would be difficult for him to gain custody of the kids and that if we got divorced, he could not easily see them,” the woman said. In Japan, divorced mothers tend to get sole custody and it is not unusual for children to stop seeing their father after their parents break up.
She also said her husband had probably been aware of Japan’s imminent accession to the Hague Convention, which sets out the rules and procedures for promptly returning children under 16 to the country of their habitual residence in cases of international divorce among member countries. Japan decided last year to join the pact.
The treaty is not retroactive. For Japan, that means it will only affect cases occurring after it enters into force here. The pact takes effect on the first day of the third calendar month after it is ratified.
The Saitama woman, who communicates with her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter every other day via the Skype Internet telephone service and saw them when she visited Florida in November, is worried that they can no longer understand Japanese and will forget about their life in Japan.
The couple are currently seeking a divorce settlement in a Florida court, in line with a U.S. law that designates a state where children stayed with a parent for six months in a row as the venue for litigation. For the woman, who has never lived abroad, U.S. court procedures mean a great deal of trouble and “unfair” situations, she said.
Left with no chance of getting a green card and little prospect of acquiring any other type of visa that would let her live in the United States, her husband is seeking sole custody of the children, she said.
“As long as Japan remains a nonparty to the Hague Convention, the U.S. court won’t allow my children to go to Japan during vacations out of fear that they would not be returned,” she said. “Japan’s accession is an important matter to me because it opens up various possibilities.”
A woman in Shizuoka Prefecture faces a similar dilemma. Her two sons, aged 5 and 7, have been with their father in the U.S. since March 2011. Her American husband refused to return with the kids due to safety concerns triggered by the Fukushima nuclear crisis after the March 2011 quake-tsunami disaster.
The woman said her husband, who moved with the children in May 2011 to Champaign, Illinois, where he had found a job, repeatedly assured her that the children would return to Japan once cold shutdown had been achieved at the troubled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
But he filed for divorce at an Illinois court in last November and the children did not return, even after the government declared in December that the plant had been brought to a stable state of cold shutdown. She said she finally realized that her husband “had planned everything in advance and conveniently used the disaster that hit Japan as an excuse.”
“My husband waited until the kids spent six months with him in Illinois so that he could start a divorce suit there to alter the situation to his advantage,” the woman said.
“I was naive to believe his promise to eventually return the children to Japan but couldn’t force him to do so, as I was concerned about radiation contamination that could jeopardize the children’s lives,” she said.
The woman, who tries to maintain communications with the children via Skype, is also concerned that their memories of the Japanese language and culture are fading.
Because the children are still registered as citizens in Japan, she launched legal action here. However, the process, which involves notification via diplomatic channels, will take a long time.
She said it is frustrating to face difficulties caused by the nuclear crisis and Japan’s position on the Hague Convention that “an individual cannot change.”
The woman said, however, she won’t forcibly bring her children back to Japan because a unilateral abduction would only produce a “negative chain reaction” and limit the children’s access to one parent. She believes that kind of drastic action will “not solve the problem and never be in the interest of the children.”
According to a tally by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, its member lawyers have accepted about 150 consultations on parental child abductions from Japan to other countries between 2000 and 2011.
Both the Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department recognize such abduction cases exist, but because Japan hasn’t joined the Hague Convention yet, they can only provide relevant information and introduce lawyers, according to the Foreign Ministry.